Preparing for the future

At all levels, living systems are in constant activity much of which is in preparation for the future. The reproductive system of a sexually mature woman goes through changes in preparation for the pregnancy that might come about. Multicellular life could not have come about without the prior colonization of the earth by single celled organisms.

The activity and behaviour of groups of organisms have a large influence on the subsequent forms they adopt. Likewise the behaviour of cells and how they manipulate their internal structures including genomes, determine the roles they play within their environment.

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Was the panda’s “thumb” designed? (Part four)

Red panda feeding. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In this, my final post on panda evolution, I’d like to conclude with some clinching evidence for panda evolution and respond to Professor Dilley’s arguments in the last two posts of his five-part series.

The red panda and the giant panda: a case of convergent evolution

(a) The evidence from the false “thumb” of the red panda and the giant panda

I’d like to begin by referring readers to a news article in AsianScientist magazine by Sim Shuzhen, titled, How Two Pandas Got Their Thumbs (Feb. 2, 2017). The article provides some fascinating evidence for the evolution of the giant panda. Interestingly, this evidence comes from the red panda, which isn’t even a bear:

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Was the panda’s “thumb” designed? (Part three)

The importance of thinking like an engineer

Uncommon Descent was, in its heyday, the leading blog for Intelligent Design, before it was eventually overtaken by (I contributed dozens of articles to it myself during my years as an Intelligent Design proponent, before leaving the ID community in 2016.) If you look at the Glossary of terms on the Uncommon Descent blog (which has now been archived) and if you expand each of the definitions and do a text search, you will find four references to “engineers,” “engineered” or “engineering,” but not a single reference to the terms “God,” “divine” or “divinity.” The word “Creator” is used twice, but only in connection with creationism, as opposed to Intelligent Design, which ID theorist Dr. William Dembski has defined simply as “the science that studies signs of intelligence.” Citing Wikipedia, the Glossary defines “intelligence” as “capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn.”

I was therefore astonished to find that in Professor Stephen Dilley’s article
Gould’s God-Talk: Is the Panda’s Thumb Incompatible with ID? (Evolution News, April 5, 2024), the word “God” is used no less than 27 times, including footnotes.

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Was the panda’s “thumb” designed? (Part two)

The giant panda Jiao Qing in May 2020. Berlin Zoological Garden. Image courtesy of Avda and Wikipedia.

In an online article at Evolution News titled, Is the Panda’s Thumb Suboptimal? (April 4, 2024), Professor Stephen Dilley criticizes Stephen Jay Gould for claiming that the panda’s thumb is suboptimal and, therefore constitutes evidence in favor of naturalistic evolution. In response, Professor Dilley cites “two major studies” that highlighted the functionality and efficiency of the panda’s thumb before concluding that the panda’s “thumb” provides evidence of being engineered:

Gould’s claim is mistaken. The panda’s thumb is not suboptimal. The best studies we have conclude that the thumb is anything but “clumsy” or “highly inefficient.” Instead, they describe it as having “great precision,” “great economy of motion,” and “great dexterity.” It may even rank as “one of the most extraordinary manipulation systems” among mammals. That is quite an accolade.

Indeed, one might rather regard the thumb as positive evidence for intelligent design. A system of such precision, efficiency, economy, and dexterity is a spectacle of a high order. That sounds very much like the kind of sophistication that only engineers produce.

UPDATE: A clarification from Glenn Branch over at Panda’s Thumb

Professor Dilley’s remarks demonstrate that he misunderstands the meaning of the word “suboptimal,” as used by evolutionary biologists. He isn’t the first person to do so; nor will he be the last. Allow me to quote from a science educator who can set him straight on this issue.

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Was the panda’s “thumb” designed? (Part one)

In a recent journal article titled, God, Gould, and the Panda’s Thumb (Religions 2023, 14(8), 1006;, former philosophy professor Stephen Dilley, who is currently a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, takes aim at an influential argument for evolution formulated by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) in his best-selling book, The Panda’s Thumb (Norton and Company: New York and London, 1980). Sadly, Professor Dilley manages to completely misconstrue Gould’s argument, which isn’t about God at all, but about engineering. This can be shown by the fact that even if we delete the two brief references to God and the single reference to an omnipotent creator and replace them with “an engineer,” and if we replace the reference to God’s “wisdom and power” with the term “skill,” then Gould’s argument still makes perfect sense. I maintain that Gould’s use of theological terms is a mere embellishment which obscures the central point he is making: namely, that mere tinkering (i.e. a series of step-by-step natural changes involving the adaptation of pre-existing parts) does not warrant an inference to intelligent design, as it requires no foresight. The panda’s “thumb” works very well, but it appears to be the product of tinkering and shows no signs of foresight on the part of whatever produced it, in the way it is put together. Instead, it is best described as a “contraption,” adapted from “a limited set of available components” via a series of natural transformations, which “follows automatically from simple hypertrophy [i.e. a massive increase in size] of the [panda’s] sesamoid bone.”
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“Is this the way to Dublin?”

In the midst of attempting to resolve the issue of the lost plugins, I’ve had a couple of brief exchanges with Lizzie (Dr Liddle, owner of this website) and Vincent (Torley, fellow admin, currently our most prolific contributor) regarding what options there are for the site and what could be done to bring those about. Lizzie suggested that one thing we could do is to solicit suggestions from our contributors and readers. By this post, I invite you to do so.

Below is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of interlinked issues that occurred to me

  1. The preservation of and access to The Skeptical Zone as it is now
  2. What to do to ensure TSZ continues in future
  3. Copyright
  4. Is Lizzie happy continuing to provide and pay for webhosting indefinitely
  5. Would Lizzie prefer to retain ownership of the URL
  6. Backing up

I have my own thoughts, but rather than pre-empt discussion, I’ll wait to see what others have to say. Whether this post receives comments is itself a comment, I suppose.

Apologists vs. Paulogia and Kamil Gregor: Are the Gospels authentic and are they reliable?

The last few weeks have seen the release of some excellent videos by both defenders and skeptics of the authenticity and reliability of the Gospels. In this post, I’ve decided to collect the best recent articles and videos I’ve seen on both sides, and put them all in one place, where readers can weigh up the evidence for themselves. My work features recent videos on the “names statistics” argument for the reliability of the Gospels, highlighting the recent work of two skeptics, Professor Brian Blais and Dr. Kamil Gregor (who appear in Paulogia’s videos) and a critique by Christian apologist Dr. Lydia McGrew, as well as a five-part series on a new book titled, The Historical Tell: Patterns of Eyewitness Testimony in the Gospel of Luke and Acts by Dr. Luuk Van de Weghe, a New Testament scholar who defends both the authenticity and reliability of Luke’s accounts. My own comments on each episode of the series, in which Dr. Van de Weghe is interviewed by Cameron Bertuzzi on his Capturing Christianity blog, are also shown below. Enjoy!

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Are we all doomed?

Scottish-American historian Niall Ferguson, who is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, has written an article on Bloomberg titled, “Global Population Crash Isn’t Sci-Fi Anymore.” I have to say it’s about as convincing a Doomsday scenario as I’ve ever seen. After identifying the various causes of global fertility decline (the increasing social pursuit of individualistic goals; the empowerment of women, who tend to postpone motherhood in order to achieve career success; the rising cost of raising and educating a child; lower rates of sexual activity among the young as smartphones, economic uncertainties and the stresses of modern life combine to depress people’s sexual appetites; more careful use of contraceptives by young people; declining religiosity due to the rise of secularization; the worldwide failure of government attempts to raise fertility rates; the global trend – America is one of the few outliers – towards easier access to abortion; a 50% fall in global sperm counts over the past 50 years, which is believed to be caused by factors such as “bad food, bad air and bad lifestyle”; increased social tolerance of euthanasia and assisted suicide) and explaining why the rise in international migration will increase the spread of global plagues and stymie attempts to tackle climate change, thereby leading to yet more immigration from exposed countries, Ferguson points out that when it happens, the global decline in population will be precipitous: from around 10 billion in 2100 to less than 2 billion by the year 2400, or a fivefold drop over the space of ten generations. His conclusion is a depressing one:

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Four for the price of one: origin of life, origin of COVID-19, no Exodus and the misunderstood Jesus

Hi everyone. Today’s post is a melange, with a bit of this and a bit of that. There’s an article from The Washington Post on a new piece of the jigsaw puzzle that gives us a better understanding of how life began, plus links to two opposing articles on the origin of COVID-19, a short video by Dr. Dan McClellan on why Moses and the Exodus are probably not historical, and an interview with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, who is Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, on about we can know about Jesus. Enjoy, and please feel free to comment as you wish.

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Sara Jayne’s Near-Death Experience: What do you think?

Sara Jayne is a cardiac diagnostic imaging specialist with over 20 years’ experience in the medical field. After being diagnosed with a life-threatening autoimmune disease, she underwent a profound near-death experience (her second), which turned her life around. She now works in Mind-Body Medicine and Applied Neuroscience, delivering mindfulness-based health & wellbeing programs, workshops and retreats. On a recent episode of Passion Harvest Podcast, Sara Jayne shared her story with the host, Luisa, who had the very good sense to let her speak without interruption. Sara Jayne’s Near-Death Experience testimony (which begins at 18:00) was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I was impressed by her modesty, her frank admission that what she saw makes no medical sense, and the powerful transformative effect her experience has had on her life. What do readers think?

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Gender identity: A thought experiment

An open fiberglass float pool at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. Image courtesy of Justin S. Feinstein , Sahib S. Khalsa, Hung-wen Yeh, Colleen Wohlrab, W. Kyle Simmons, Murray B. Stein, Martin P. Paulus and Wikipedia.

Gender identity is defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as “an individual’s self-conception as a man or woman or as a boy or girl or as some combination of man/boy and woman/girl or as someone fluctuating between man/boy and woman/girl or as someone outside those categories altogether.” While it is thought to have a genetic component, no genes have yet been found to underpin it, and a recent scientific paper titled, “Brain Sex Differences Related to Gender Identity Development: Genes or Hormones?” (International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2020 Mar 19;21(6):2123. doi: 10.3390/ijms21062123. PMID: 32204531; PMCID: PMC7139786) modestly concludes that “to provide reliable conclusions, more data are needed.” Anyway, what interests me as a philosopher is whether gender identity is something purely subjective (like my perception of the color of a bank note), intersubjective (like the value that we as a society collectively assign to pieces of paper we call bank notes), or objective (like the length or mass of a bank note when it is at rest). So I came up with an interesting thought experiment involving a hitman, post-traumatic amnesia and a sensory deprivation tank. (Students of philosophy will notice the resemblance of this case to Avicenna’s “floating man” thought experiment, but my purpose is altogether different.) Curious? Read on.

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Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J. explains the Trinity and the Incarnation (or does he)?

Fr. Spitzer’s Proof of the Unity of God
The Trinity explained by the act of looking at a bottle
The Incarnation
The central paradoxes of the Trinity and the Incarnation

(NOTE: I’ve included the above podcast, which is divided into five sections, for the benefit of those who would prefer to listen to what I’ve written, rather than read it. People who prefer to read my post are welcome to continue scrolling down.)

Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J. is a Catholic priest in the Jesuit order and a retired President of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Currently, he is President of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith and the Spitzer Center of Ethical Leadership. As well as having a Bachelor of Business Administration degree, Fr. Spitzer has a Master’s degree in Philosophy, a Master of Divinity degree, a Master of Theology degree and a Doctor of Philosophy degree. He has published more than ten books, as well as dozens of articles, and he has appeared on several national television programs, including Larry King Live, The History Channel in “God and The Universe,” The Today Show, the PBS series “Closer to the Truth,” and the Hugh Hewitt Show. So when I came across a Youtube video featuring Fr. Spitzer being interviewed by Lila Rose (a pro-life activist and convert to Catholicism) titled, You’ve Never Heard the Trinity Explained Like THIS, I was intrigued.

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New Year’s Trifecta

Hi everyone, and Happy New Year! After having five enjoyable days off with my family, I’ll be returning to work this evening. In the meantime, I thought I’d present viewers of The Skeptical Zone with three interesting items for their perusal, as a New Year’s gift. The first is a thoughtfully argued essay on the problem of evil with reference to the atrocities committed by Hamas, titled, Where was God on October 7? A Different Perspective (The Times of Israel, January 1, 2024) by Professor Benjamin Porat, an Associate Professor at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. The second is an article titled, Kurt Gödel, his mother and the argument for life after death by Alexander Englert at Aeon Essays (January 2, 2024), which discusses Gödel’s reasons for believing in an afterlife, which he set forth in four letters he wrote to his mother in 1961. The third is a two-on-two debate held on December 22, 2023, in which two Christians (Jimmy Akin and Caleb Jackson) debated two atheists (John Loftus and Dr. Darren Slade) on whether Jesus was born of a virgin. The debate was hosted by Cameron Bertuzzi, of Capturing Christianity. Readers can view the debate below (see the Youtube video).
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Happy New Year

2024! I’m almost glad to see the back of 2023 but have little expectation of good news and I’m finding it hard to be optimistic. Is there anyone still reading The Skeptical Zone that can suggest something that could happen that might help me regain a bit of that lost optimism?

Nonetheless, Happy New Year to everyone.

An A-Z of Unanswered Objections to Christianity: Y. Has Christianity made the world a better place?

When one is assessing the credibility of a religion, impact matters: has it been a force for good or for evil? In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his followers how to discern false prophets: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, NASB). This is a test that can be applied not only to prophets, but to entire religions. What I am proposing in this essay is that while a religion which makes our world a better place may not necessarily be true on that account, its positive influence on the course of human history at least renders it worthy of consideration. On the other hand, we can probably disregard the truth claims of a religion which leaves the world no better than it was before, and ignore altogether the claims of a religion which actually makes the world a worse place in which to live. So the question we need to ask, before examining the intellectual claims of Christianity, is: has Christianity made the world a better place?

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Dr. Jeffrey Tripp on the failure of undesigned coincidences

Dr. Jeffrey Tripp has a PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity. He is also the author of a text titled, Direct Internal Quotation in the Gospel of John. His academic publications can be found here. In this interview with Derek Lambert of Mythvision, Dr. Tripp critiques the argument from undesigned coincidences developed by Christian apologist Dr. Lydia McGrew in her book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts. I have to say that Dr. Tripp’s rebuttal of Dr. McGrew’s argument is about the best I’ve seen yet: it’s fair, thorough, courteous and scholarly. What do viewers think?

Assembly theory explains and quantifies selection and evolution

Scientists have grappled with reconciling biological evolution1,2 with the immutable laws of the Universe defined by physics. These laws underpin life’s origin, evolution and the development of human culture and technology, yet they do not predict the emergence of these phenomena.

Evolutionary theory explains why some things exist and others do not through the lens of selection. To comprehend how diverse, open-ended forms can emerge from physics without an inherent design blueprint, a new approach to understanding and quantifying selection is necessary3,4,5.

We present assembly theory (AT) as a framework that does not alter the laws of physics, but redefines the concept of an ‘object’ on which these laws act. AT conceptualizes objects not as point particles, but as entities defined by their possible formation histories. This allows objects to show evidence of selection, within well-defined boundaries of individuals or selected units.

We introduce a measure called assembly (A), capturing the degree of causation required to produce a given ensemble of objects. This approach enables us to incorporate novelty generation and selection into the physics of complex objects. It explains how these objects can be characterized through a forward dynamical process considering their assembly.

By reimagining the concept of matter within assembly spaces, AT provides a powerful interface between physics and biology. It discloses a new aspect of physics emerging at the chemical scale, whereby history and causal contingency influence what exists.


The Expanded Problem of Animal Suffering

Phil Halper (aka SkydivePhil) has produced a hard-hitting new video titled, “Atheism’s Best Argument? The Problem of Animal Suffering & The Neuroscience of Pain,” in conjunction with philosopher of consciousness Ken Williford, neuroscientist David Rudrauf, pain expert Perry Fuchs, as well as ethicists Peter Singer and Mark Bernstein, and philosopher Joe Schmid and Within Reason host Alex O’Connor (the artist formerly known as cosmic skeptic). Here’s a brief excerpt from the video’s description:

The problem of animal suffering (a version of the problem of evil) has recently been described as the biggest problem for Christianity. However, a new paper in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion suggests that the problem is far worse than imagined. Here, we explain why and counter attempts by theists to reply.

I’ll be putting out a TSZ post on the problem of evil later this year. In the meantime, I’d like to ask viewers what they think of SkydivePhil’s latest video. Comment is welcome.